The coker towers at Suncor's operation north of Fort McMurray, Alberta | Courtesy of Suncor Energy Inc.
To find a growth powerhouse, one only has to look at
the Alberta oil sands. Since 2005, mined production
of synthetic crude oil and bitumen from the oil sands
has expanded almost 40 per cent. The oil sands’ expansion
will undoubtedly continue for years to come: with overseas
oil supplies seemingly uncertain, the United States has an
interest in maintaining its own fuel sources, and oil sands
operators are betting on that market need.
“The vast majority of new oil supplies in Canada are
forecast to come from the oil sands,” says Greg Stringham,
vice-president, oil sands, Canadian Association of
Petroleum Producers (CAPP). By 2025, CAPP predicts
that oil sands production will grow to 3.7 million barrels of
oil equivalent per day, up from 1.5 million in 2010.
About one-third of that estimated growth will come from
surface mining, although the major producers’ experiences
show that building and expanding bitumen mines on time
and within budget is no easy task. Fluctuating oil prices,
high costs and environmental concerns have stretched out
the timelines of the construction projects currently underway.
But their operators are confident that their plans will
New reclamation rules
As the oil sands operations grow, increased public
scrutiny has added new layers of work to site plans, as well
as external relations and legal departments. The large,
long-lasting tailings ponds created by mining operations
are particularly visible targets. In response to concerns
about their impact, Alberta’s Energy Resources and
Conservation Board issued a directive in 2009 requiring all
mineable oil sands operations to reduce their fluid tailings.
Dry “dedicated disposal areas” must compose half of total
tailings by 2013, and the disposal areas must be reclamation-
ready five years after deposition has ended.
Oil sands companies had already been working on
researching and developing tailings management technologies,
but the existence of specific goals and timelines
has accelerated and redirected their research efforts.
Syncrude Canada Ltd., which had already been using composite
tailings and researching water capping solutions,
began to study centrifuging technology in response to the
directive. “It’s a faster way to get the water out of your tailings
as opposed to the other technologies,” explains Cheryl
Robb, media relations adviser at Syncrude.
Barry Palmer, general manager of heavy construction
and mining at North American Construction Group
(NACG), reports that new tailings requirements make more
work for contractors as companies seek to test out technologies
without initially investing in their own equipment.
“We’ve been actively engaged in construction of some of
their tailings mud drying cells,” he says.
For Imperial Oil, the regulation meant a redesign and reapproval
of its Kearl mining project, initially approved in
2009. The company is still researching tailings technologies
that will pass muster, but the Energy Resources and
Conservation Board (ERCB) allowed it to delay meeting
the requirements until 2018 on the condition that it would
thereafter exceed them. The first phase of production at
Kearl is scheduled to commence in late 2012.